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Remix Clinic: Effective Measures

October 12, 2010

This month, I''m going to explore some great sound-effects techniques you can use in your remixes and projects. Sound effects can be that finishing touch that add a certain polish to your music and make it sound full and more complex. They provide dimension and texture, and they are a great way to help introduce or transition between difference sections in your arrangement or just make a particular part a bit more interesting. You can use them to add a creative and original sound to your productions, they''re fun to design, and the combinations are limitless.

Throughout a remix or production project, I will typically set up several dedicated effects tracks in my DAW session. One of the most common scenarios for this would be to add a delay to one word in the vocal, say at the end of a lyric line. In that case, I create a new track and add the delay and any other processing I want, for example EQ and compression. Then I''ll copy the word I want to delay from the vocal track and paste it onto the dedicated delay track. Because it''s a duplicate of a word on the dry original track, setting the delay mix to 100-percent wet means that all I''ll be hearing on that new track will be the delayed word (see Fig. 1).

FIG. 1: When you want to delay a single word, copy it to a new track, insert a delay, and set its mix to 100-percent wet.

FIG. 1: When you want to delay a single word, copy it to a new track, insert a delay, and set its mix to 100-percent wet.

I use this same concept to build more complex and creative effects processing chains for other dedicated tracks. For example, if I want the vocals to have a really washed-out and effected sound during the breakdown, I''ll copy the vocal parts I want to process onto a new track. Then I''ll spend time designing and building my effects chain. In the case of the washed-out vocals, I start by putting a highpass filter on the vocal and matching pretty much what I had on the original track. Then I add the reverb, some tape delay, and some chorus to soften and thicken it up a bit. I also like the grit that guitar-amp plug-ins add to vocals and will use those a lot on dedicated vocal effects tracks. Last but not least, I will usually add compression to help glue things together and help bring out the part.

The other great thing about using dedicated effects tracks is that once they are set up, you can just simply drop other parts into those tracks and instantly process them. This makes for a fast and easy way to add just a little consistency throughout the project.

Sweeps and swooshes are staple effects in dance remixes (see Web Clips 1a and 1b). They can add texture and movement to a section or be used to introduce contrasting sections of your arrangement. They can be very short or very long, and can either build up or hit and sweep down. They can be thick, thin, and everything in between. I typically have a few generic starting points for processing sweeps when I add them.

To process my sweep or swoosh, I start with the following effects chain: first an EQ with a highpass filter to thin it out. How much thinner depends on what else is happening at that time and how full the frequency spectrum is. If there is a lot going on, I''ll thin the sound out quite a bit so it just sits on top and doesn''t clutter up the mix. Next I like to put a flanger, set pretty low (around 20 to 25 percent), just to give it some modulation. Then I usually put a short tape delay set to an eighth- or 16th-note to give it some movement in tempo, and I can also extend the decay of the sound if I want by adding more feedback to the delay plug-in.

Another great trick for sweeps is to add some sidechain compression. I always set up a global sidechain track, usually set using a kick on the quarter notes, and use that as a key input on a compressor insert on any given track in my project. In this case, once the global sidechain is set up, I''ll insert a compressor and activate the key input to the sidechain track. Then I just play with the ratio, threshold, and make-up gain to get the desired ducking or pumping effect that I want. Sidechain compression has become very popular of late—not only on effects tracks, but on vocals, synths, and even the master bus. Using a ducking sidechain effect not only offers movement to a part, but it moves within the tempo of your track based on whatever is triggering the 
key input.

One technique that is great to use is a noise generator that spits out white or pink noise. In Apple Logic, this is achieved by inserting the test oscillator on an instrument track and using the basic pink- or white-noise presets. We all know what white noise sounds like, but technically it is the presence of sound at every frequency across the spectrum at equal level. Pink noise is the same, except it has sharp filters at every octave. Pink noise sounds a little darker and more muffled. Whether you use pink or white noise is a matter of taste. I like the brightness of white noise, so I typically just use that.

FIG. 2: I like to automate the volume of my sweep tracks for maximum impact.

FIG. 2: I like to automate the volume of my sweep tracks for maximum impact.

Once the instrument is set up, I''ll mute the track or lower the fader so I can finish the processing chain by inserting an EQ, a compressor, and a flanger or a phaser. Again, sidechain compression is great on the white-noise track because it will add movement that makes the noise less obtrusive and constant. Once the white noise is all set up, I will then use this track to create my own building sweeps throughout the track and automate the volume rides (see Fig. 2). After I''m done, I quickly print the instrument track to a new audio track and commit it. I find it''s easier to work with it that way.

If you want to add something different from a typical sweep or swoosh sound, try processing some other types of source material. For example, instead of a sweep, you can process a sample of a jet flying over or a race car screaming by. The idea is that when you''re done processing it, it won''t necessarily sound like a plane or a car, but rather a long drawn-out sound that''s capable of adding tension or suspense, similar to what a sweep does.

To design these types of effects, I like to get sounds that are as long as possible because it is always easy to edit them to be shorter. After finding a suitable sound file, I''ll import it and start processing it heavily. I''ll start by inserting things such as EQ, flanger/chorus, tape delay, and reverb. Then it''s a matter of playing with the processing and seeing what happens. Once I have given it a new characteristic sound, I''ll start listening to it in the mix and find a place for it to ultimately sit. You can also use the sidechain and automate it to build in and/or out, however you like. It is basically a creative way to add a one-of-a-kind sound effect. You can also do this to virtually any sound.

At the end of the day, sound effects are one area of production where there really are no rules. You can get as creative as you want and experiment with endless combinations of processing chains, delays, sidechain tricks, and anything 
else you can think up. Like with all aspects of music creation, the key is to stay creative and ultimately trust your ears to tell you if something is working or not.

Vincent di Pasquale is producer/remixer who works out of his project studio. He has remixed songs for Madonna, Nelly Furtado, Mariah Carey, and many others; and is the author of The Art of the Remix, a comprehensive interactive remixing course available at

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